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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Film Review | Angels & Demons

Papal Bull

by Thomas Delapa

You may need a secret decoder ring--and a degree in symbology--to make sense out of Angels & Demons, the latest Dan Brown best-seller to wing its way to the big screen. Director Ron Howard’s hurly-burly potboiler is a witches’ brew of Vatican conspiracy theories, flighty sci-fi and unsavory violence that might even put off the Spanish Inquisition.

Fearlessly treading the same path as 2006’s blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, Angels chronicles the further adventures of Tom Hanks' Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of “symbology” and expert on the cryptic history of the Catholic Church. Now that Langdon cleared up the mystery of Jesus’ less-than-godly relationship with Mary Magdalene, it’s up to him to deliver Vatican City from a man-made apocalypse.

Twisting fact and fiction in an arcane but compelling fashion, Brown’s books delve into the fascinating, often juicy history of one of the West’s most enduring and monolithic institutions. Given the quakes and tremors that have rocked the church in our era, Brown has opportunistically positioned his missives, exploiting the secular tastes of mass-market modernism.

It’s no Roman holiday when Langdon is called to the Vatican itself after the pope suddenly dies and four of his would-be successors are kidnapped by the Illuminati, a dark secret society thought to be dead since the Renaissance. The real bad news is that agents of the Illuminati threaten to blow up Vatican City to kingdom come with a canister of antimatter stolen from a Swiss laboratory.

O ye of little faith, if you think “antimatter” is only found in the bible of Star Trek, think again. Brown is hell-bent on tossing any sort of convention, fiction or nonfiction, sacred or profane, to serve his plot. It was lucky for Howard and his crew that they shot several scenes for Angels during the Da Vinci production, anticipating that the Vatican wouldn’t put its imprimatur on this release, starting with its portrayal of the Swiss Guards and the Italian police as bumbling, if not brethren to the conspiracy.

With the bomb set to explode around midnight--releasing the “God particle”--Langdon teams up with a raven-haired physicist (Ayelet Zurer) to discover the location of the captive cardinals. No Sherlock Holmes, Langdon is habitually late on the scene, resulting in a string of grotesque murders that Howard serves up for sadistic, arguably sacrilegious, thrills. In his race against the atomic clock, Langdon also must negotiate his way into the sanctum sanctorum of the Vatican Archives, sidestepping the gruff head of the guards (Stellan Skarsgaard) while winning the blessings of the late pope’s protégé (Ewan McGregor).

Merely byzantine when not sinister, the inner workings of the Vatican come cloaked in lavish production design, from the James Bondian subterranean archives to the dank grottoes leading to the tomb of St. Peter. As if the plot lines aren’t tangled enough, there’s also the scarlet-robed College of Cardinals, who bizarrely insist on meeting in conclave to pick a new pope during the doomsday crisis.

Like Jerry Bruckheimer’s National Treasure flicks, Angels breathlessly flits from scene to scene, genuflecting before the Hollywood god of action and special effects. Along the way, Howard narratively loots 2000 years of holy Roman history, from such sites as the Pantheon and the Castel Sant’Angelo. In his second coming to the screen, Langdon swoops in as an American know-it-all, thus proving that that Holy See is as blind as a bat.


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